” You’re getting older, and you’ll see that life isn’t like your fairy tales. The world is a cruel place. And you’ll learn that, even if it hurts.”
Viewer expectations are an important part of any movie-going experience. With Pan’s Labyrinth, I was fairly confident I’d be walking into a dark, twisted fairy tale with fantastical creature and a stunning visual presentation. While the film probably checks all of those boxes, some more than others, I was still left unsatisfied, a little discouraged after the film ended. This may be another case where the legacy of a film, its hype factor, gets to my head over time until I’m expecting some masterpiece, a label which Pan’s Labyrinth does not meet. Guillermo del Toro still shows impeccable skill and imagination in the presentation of this movie, and it’s a film ripe with thematic meat to rip into, but I found the narrative relatively standard and boring at times, and the visual choices didn’t always resonate with me as a viewer. Nonetheless, I still think Pan’s Labyrinth is a fine film well worthy of dissection in the realm of great cinema.
Set against the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, a young girl named Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) finds herself living in a new home with her beloved mother and her new stepfather, the ruthless military leader Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez). As conditions grow violent in the surrounding area, with rebel forces fighting for freedom against the harsh rule of Vidal and his men, Ofelia finds herself descending into a fantasy adventure, discovering that she is the princess of a magical realm, and she must make her return to her rightful throne. Through the course of the movie, Ofelia goes through various trials, guided by a magical Faun (Doug Jones) as she attempts to complete her mystical journey, perhaps doing some good for the real world as she has come to know it as well.
The strongest point in the film for me, while some would argue for the film’s visuals, would be the clever story, which was carefully crafted and darkly executed by del Toro. The parallels between the Spanish Civil War and Ofelia’s fairy tale journey become increasingly obvious, and del Toro uses mystical imagery to make powerful commentary about the real world. The film’s ending is particularly interesting, and I found it to be a commentary against not only fascism and strict adherence to authority but against Catholicism and blind obedience to hierarchy as well. (del Toro has spoken out against Catholicism frequently, and much of the film’s imagery would suggest that he finds serious injustice in its tenets.) I also appreciate how many of the film’s characters, particularly the Faun, appear neither entirely right or wrong. There’s a sense of loose morality hanging over the story that often lets the viewer decide where to point fingers, although I find that del Toro hints strongly against some characters more than others, and certain figures such as Captain Vidal are unquestionably reprehensible.
As mentioned above, however, I was still let down by the film, perhaps more on a moment to moment basis. I like the film’s story as a whole, as a sum of its parts, but the parts themselves can be tedious at times. Ofelia’s mythical journey is seriously muted in favor of the “real world” military storyline, and I think there are some balance issues with the story’s composition because of this. In a film pitched to me as Pan’s Labyrinth, after all, I would expect a more allegorical approach to the narrative, and I felt that I was left wanting more from the fantasy element of the story once the credits finally rolled. It’s clear that del Toro wants to make his parallels obvious to the viewer, but perhaps they just came across a bit too heavy for me, and I think a smart audience could make the same connections while being a bit more entertained or mystified by a bit different of a story. I also just found a lot of scenes repetitive, such as the disrespect towards Ofelia’s mother by the Captain, which seemed to take up a lot more space than was necessary. Maybe I just wanted to see more of the fun fairy tale world and was let down by the cynicism of the story, but I think there’s a case to be made that the film would have been better off to show off a bit more adventure.
Pan’s Labyrinth is also heavily praised for its visuals, which are undeniably impressive and engaging for a 2006 film, not aging too badly for 2016 standards either. I did find that the film was a bit too dark at times – literally dark, in terms of its lighting. It’s clear that del Toro is coupling dark lighting with dark themes, hearkening back to the harsher, more violent era of fairy tales, which served more as cautionary stories than childhood entertainment. However, I find that Pan’s Labyrinth can grow tedious with this sort of visual style. As blunt as it sounds, I wish I could have been able to see better. There’s this strange withholding of light in the film’s composition, and it makes for an interesting visual sensation at times, but I don’t think it was necessary all the time and to such a heightened degree. A bit more variety would have been nice.
I feel that I’ve been heaping a lot of criticism on Pan’s Labyrinth today, but let it be known that this is a film brimming with fun surprises, and it’s still an excellent piece of work. The sinister take on the fairy tale narrative is refreshing and engaging. While I think this part of the story goes underrepresented, what we do get from del Toro is imaginative and satisfying enough to fully indulge ourselves in. With the intelligent approach to its subject matter and thematic imagery across the board, Pan’s Labyrinth really makes up for its losses with creativity and talented storytelling. It’s a dark, powerful sensation of a film that sticks with you for quite a while after watching it. I’d just warn against expecting it to live up to its prestigious reputation, because in the case of this film, it simply didn’t hit that mark for me.
Films Left to Watch: 913